A Lucky Man

Colin Topp: Serving His Country and Community

Written by Rebecca Glover

Photos by Mykeljon Winckel

Life hasn't been all plain sailing, but this Papakura pair have smoothed the waters for many.

“I was born lucky,” says Colin Topp. Weathering the Depression of the 1930s, a survivor of years of war in the Pacific and now 93 years old, he's been lucky in love too with Phyll, his wife of 72 years come June. But Papakura has been lucky to have the Topps, who have devoted a lifetime of service to numerous organisations.

Sharing space with some of the awards celebrating the couple's service to the district, a dashing young sailor with a twinkling eye smiles from a photograph on the wall of the modest Papakura bungalow that he built 68 years ago, in what's become a busy suburban street.

“It was all farm land when we came here. We paid about £90 for the quarter acre section and the road wasn't properly formed.”

Colin's apprenticeship at the long gone Otahuhu railway workshops was interrupted by World War II, when he was called up for army service. “I didn't like walking,” says Colin, who swapped parade ground drill for the Royal New Zealand Navy after a few months.

Colin's war was spent on the light cruiser HMNZS Gambia, which he joined in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Gambia served with the British Pacific Fleet, participating in attacks on Japanese positions throughout the Pacific, including the bombardment of the Japanese city of Kamaishi in 1944. She was under attack by Japanese aircraft when a ceasefire was announced, and possibly fired some of the last shots of World War II.

She was present in Tokyo Bay for the signing of the Japanese surrender in September 1945.

Colin thoroughly enjoyed the cameraderie of his time in the naval service. “They were the best years of my life,” he says.

“I waited three years for you,” Phyll reminds him, “and I've looked after you for over 71 years.” They met in Dunedin when Colin was training to be a navy signaller in 1943, marrying in 1946.

Colin was fortunate to come through the war unscathed, unlike some of his mates. He still feels deeply the loss of so many lives. He doesn't like to talk about the war, preferring instead to concentrate on his work with the Returned and Services Association (RSA), which he joined on his discharge from the navy.

Colin says he was able to assimilate easily back into civilian life, but joining RSA made that transition easier for him and many others. “The forces just gave you your discharge papers and sent you out the gate.”

Shared experiences gave the men something in common, as it had for the returned servicemen of his father's generation.

“Those old chaps all mucked in and helped one another. The RSA owes everything to those World War I guys. They knew how to look after each other, and it rubbed off on me.

“Businessmen, farmers, tradesmen, they were generous to a fault; people don't realise. There was a lot to be learned from them. You always looked after your mates.

“The Papakura timber merchant, Jim Ryan – people never knew what he did to help. He was very community-minded. He used to bring up truckloads of coal at his own expense, and we'd bag it up and provide the coal to those who needed it. Every Friday he'd go down to the RSA and shout for his mates. And there were farmers, like Jack Patterson, they'd never see their mates stay down and out.

“You don't see that sort of thing today.”

As Papakura RSA membership grew, bigger premises were needed to replace its upstairs premises over the Star Theatre. Colin was at the forefront of efforts to secure a new home for the organisation. Negotiating with mayor Archie Campbell in the 1970s, Colin secured the site of the present RSA building by assuring him “the RSA will always be community oriented”.

The new premises, built at a cost of $420,523, opened in October 1979 and immediately became a community hub, packing the crowds in for functions.

“There was always something on,” recalls Colin, who was memorably involved in a 'wrestling match' held in the clubrooms.

“There was a ring set up and it was all on between the 'Taranaki Tiger' (well known jockey Jackie Mudford) and the 'Bombay Bull'” (aka Colin Topp). Colin isn't saying who was victorious, but the packed crowd were the winners on the night.

“We had a really good working membership. With the new clubrooms just built, we put in for the 1980 national bowling championships – without a bowling green. We called for working bees and had people coming from their office jobs, men who had never handled a shovel in their lives, working away till dark to get the greens completed.”

Colin served almost 40 years in executive positions for the RSA, including as Auckland district president and national vice-president. A life member of RSA, his gold badge award is its highest honour, shared by few.

Both Phyll and Colin have been recognised for their work for the community. Phyll received the Queen's Service Medal in 1998 and Colin became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2003. Colin served as a Justice of the Peace for 30 years.

A lasting tribute to Colin's dedication is the striking memorial forming an extension to the existing RSA area at Manukau Memorial Gardens. It was a long labour of love from its conception in 1980 to its unveiling in 2010. It commemorates all New Zealand servicemen and women who gave their lives in the wars of the 20th century, as well as the nurses who served in those wars. Carefully chosen photos and exerpts from diaries are depicted on the memorial columns.

“It's been Colin's dream,” says Phyll, who as well as supporting Colin in his endeavours has been busy with many of her own and is an honorary Papakura RSA life member.

Both Colin and Phyll have prospered through hard work and determination, and know the value of helping others during hard times. Their countless hours of voluntary work in the community have been given willingly and Papakura has benefited hugely from the Topps' selfless service.

But to the self-effacing pair it just comes naturally. Or as Colin puts it: “If you can't help people, why the hell are you put here!”